Blondes Away!

Saturday, October 30, 2010 /by

106372023

by Pete Bodo

As Caroline Wozniacki prepares to play for the WTA Championships title (a win there would be Wozniacki's most significant title to date), we're entitled to wonder: Is she the next dominant WTA champion, plucking titles off the Grand Slam tree as if they were low-hanging fruit (see "G" for Graf, or "S" for Serena), or the next...Elena Dementieva?

Dementieva stole some of Wozniacki's thunder this week, choosing to retire from tennis at the same time that Wozniacki sewed up the year-end No. 1 ranking. So one blonde is out, one blonde is in, maintaining a tradition while also paring it down. Wozniacki, of course, has already surpassed Dementieva's career-high ranking of No. 3. But can she build a comparable resume, which includes two Olympic medals (including a gold in singles at the 2008 Beijing Games), nine semifinal—or better—finishes at Grand Slam events, and a 22-5 singles record in Fed Cup?

Two of those Fed Cup wins came in the 2005 final against a strong French squad. Dementieva put on a master class. She beat Mary Pierce and Amelie Mauresmo in singles, and partnered with Dinara Safina to win the critical fifth doubles (defeating the same two women Dementieva subdued in singles) in one of her career-best moments. And it was a championship tie played away from Dementieva's Moscow home, at the home of the French Open, Stade Roland Garros. In a way, that performance is emblematic of the realities that govern the WTA (as well as ATP): If you're not winning majors, you're chopped liver, at least as far as broad acclaim goes. But really, there's a lot more to having as long and rich a career as was Dementieva's.

A player like Dementieva—ask the next cab driver you hail if he recognizes the name—wins an awful lot of tennis matches. Many of those wins are resonant and certainly deeply satisfying. Kind of like writing a novel that's highly praised by your peers, and the most discerning of critics, but fails to crack the all-important best seller list, or attract a big, fat option deal from some movie producer. Why not me?, you may find yourself wondering. To which the only real answer is, Who knows? The prize-money check may balm what wounds a Slamless pro sustains, as does the respect of her peers and the cognescenti. But there's a bigger prize out there, and everyone knows it.

But it's easy to place so much emphasis on the majors, especially when it comes to players not our own. As important as the majors are, they're also to some degree a least-common denominator, universally used to judge players in who we don't necessarily have some vested interest. When you judge a player by her success at the majors—and it's not as if Dementieva has been a total Grand Slam flop—it's a little bit like adopting money earned as a baseline measure of success in business. (Or in the arts, although we're not supposed to say that. But would you really love, say, a Julian Schnabel—or even know who the hail he is—if his work wasn't going for $5 million a pop?) Or put it this way: If that cabbie to whom you put that question about Dementieva picked you up in Moscow, I'd bet dollars to donuts that he or she certainly would recognize her name and her accomplishments. But would he know the name Francesca Schiavone, or Gaston Gaudio?

Wozniacki in some ways has a tougher row to hoe than did Dementieva, despite having jumped out to a significantly better start. Dementieva, who's 29, didn't hit her career-high ranking until last season; Wozniacki, ranked No. 1, is all of 20. With 12 singles titles to her credit, Wozniacki is already just four short of Dementieva's career haul (16). And despite their age difference (even top players are generally thought to need a significant period of apprenticeship before ascending to No. 1, even if they win majors long before), Wozniacki has a winning head-to-head record against Dementieva (4-3).

Those statistics are prohibitively positive for Wozniacki. Yet somehow if I ask myself, Will Wozniacki have a better career than Dementieva?, I find myself balking at making what would be the obvious reply, and why that's so is a question that's more easily answered than the original one.

Dementieva had the misfortune to be a contemporary of Venus and Serena Williams. She played Serena surprisingly close, finishing 5-7 (and who can forget that epic Wimbledon win by Serena, 8-6 in the third, in last year's semis?), but had more trouble with Venus (3-9). Dementieva played Martina Hingis well seven times (3-4), but she was generally crushed by Lindsay Davenport (5-11). Against other Grand Slam champs or No. 1 players, Dementieva was 3-7 against Jelena Jankovic, 4-2 versus Ana Ivanovic, and 6-5 against Dinara Safina. Dementieva was hammered 11-3 by Kim Clijsters and even more savaged by Justine Henin, 11-2. She struggled against Svetlana Kuzentsova (4-7) but fared slightly better against Mauresmo, going 6-10.

By my unreliable math, Dementieva was 44-74 against the best players of two generations. Just for kicks, I checked to see if she'd ever played Steffi Graf, and came up blank. I don't have the patience to add up all the Grand Slam titles accounted for by the women represented in this head-to-head, but suffice it to say that it's mildy surprising that a woman who has a better than .500 record against the cream of the crop didn't hit paydirt on at least one occasion at a major.

Wozniacki is 0-2 against Serena Williams, and 0-4 against Serena's sister Venus. She won the only match she played against Mauresmo, lost her only match with Kim Clijsters (whom she'll face today) as well as her one encounter with Henin. She's 1-2 vs. Ivanovic and 0-4 vs. Jankovic. Davenport won the only time she played Wozniacki, and Hingis crushed her twice. Safina won her only match against Wozniacki. Wozniacki is 3-2 against Kuznetsova. All told, by my count, she's 5-19 against the best players she's faced, and two of those players (Jankovic and Safina) have, like Wozniacki, failed thus far to win a major.

106307504 Five of 24 is a far cry from 44-74, but it's also true that Wozniacki is at the very beginning of her career; I doubt that Dementieva's winning percentage was much higher against the best players at a comparable age. But the critical detail is that Dementieva was nowhere near the No. 1 ranking when she was 20 (she finished 2001 ranked 15th, and actually fell back four places the following year). So what we have in Wozniacki is the apprentice in charge of the workshop, and we'll just have to wait to see how that all works out. It's absurd to challenge or attempt to discredit that No. 1 ranking. It's a fact, although we can while away hours discussing how it came to pass. But the burdens that are passed along to the player who's no. 1 are not to be dismissed.

The great advantage Wozniacki enjoys, which Dementieva never had, is that she's free to write her personal history on what looks more and more like the proverbial tabula rasa. Her path isn't exactly strewn with roadblocks. Three of her main rivals—Jankovic, Ivanovic and Safina—have one major between them. Maria Sharapova hasn't been the same since her shoulder injury of over a year ago, and the Williams sisters are banged up, their future uncertain. Clijsters returned, but has put up exactly the kind of results you can expect from a part-time employee who's secure—she appears to be working only because she needs to fill her days and the money, which after all, is pretty darned good. Henin has retreated to lick the wounds inflicted during her brief return to the fray. Hail, even Kuznetsova's future is clouded, although I imagine Wozniacki wouldn't mind battling her, given how Sveta has provided Caro with more than 50 percent of her wins over top players.

Dementieva is a superior athlete to Wozniacki, but then tennis isn't a game ruled by athleticism, even if it's the value-added element that tends to lift great champions above merely good ones. That raises an interesting point: Was Dementieva a better "athlete" than "tennis player?" And if so, does it mean that Wozniacki, who's clearly more tennis player than athlete, ought to fare better in the long term?

Wozniacki hasn't exactly lit it up at the majors (the U.S. Open excepted), but she's demonstrated a great deal of consistency—more than was ever shown by Dementieva. In tennis, winning begets winning; it's a simple as that. And Dementieva's failure to win a major is less of a comment on her athletic abilities than on some flawed component of her make-up as a tennis player—a shortcoming she was able to overcome on only a few occasions, like the Beijing Olympics, or in that Fed Cup final against France. Call it choking, call it falling prey to a bad day on an important day, or call it the quality of competition—it amounts to the same thing: An inability to raise her game and tighten down the mental screws when it most counted. The failure of a habitual consistency.

So there is Wozniacki's position in a nutshell. The WTA is there for the taking, and Wozniacki has shown signs of being the kind of player who can put the hammer down on her rivals, week-in, week-out. But she has yet to prove herself by the most reliable measure of all, winning the biggest of titles. The opportunity for her is enormous, partly because at the moment there is a surprising lack of potential resistance. And until we see a player whose combination of desire, dedication, fitness and talent exceeds that of Wozniacki's present rivals, it's her game to lose.

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